Politics & Government

Cuts abound in state budget plan

Residents who depend on state-managed health care could have to make tough decisions about which prescriptions to fill, while smokers would pay more under a draft House of Representatives budget approved Wednesday.

The $5.1 billion spending plan would raise the nation's lowest cigarette tax by 30 cents a pack and set the money aside for health care programs. But cuts to those same health care programs mean residents who receive coverage for as many as 10 Medicaid prescription drugs would only be covered for three if the budget is approved. In addition, children in low-income families would have less access to state-funded health coverage.

Many agencies would lose as much as one-fifth of their budgets from last year, as lawmakers struggle to deal with a half-billion-dollar budget deficit due to three years of falling state revenues.

Among the cuts were public schools, which lost $104 million from the state portion of their funding. But the second, and final year, of federal stimulus money means total K-12 budgets will increase by 4.3 percent.

But that did not stop Democrats from noting that state support of public schools is now equivalent to the 1995 budget. "We are asking our educational system to do all the things we've added on since 1995, for the same 1995 funding," said Rep. Harry Ott, D-Calhoun.

But Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, said the House has put a priority on education compared to other aspects of state government. If lawmakers think cuts are bad this year, Cooper said, wait until the stimulus money runs out.

"When we need a billion (dollars) next year," Cooper said, "these are going to look like the good times."

The budget cuts, state agencies said, will mean some state workers will lose their jobs.

The state Department of Education said a $4.6 million cut would mean one-quarter of staffers could lose their jobs, Ott said.

Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said a 15 percent cut to Clemson Public Service Activities means the agency would likely lay off county agents.

State colleges and universities were mostly left untouched, as cuts in state funding were offset by stimulus funds.

The cigarette tax compromise is uncertain, as advocates have pushed for a larger increase. Cooper said it was likely the tax would not be included in the final version of the budget when the House takes it up in three weeks.